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Summary and Findings

The East and West Flower Garden Banks have been afforded protection through the National Marine Sanctuaries Act since 1992. Prior to that, restrictions imposed by the Minerals Management Service and Environmental Protection Agency protected the banks from specific threats and activities. The sanctuary was expanded in 1996 to include Stetson Bank.

Regulatory decisions at the Flower Garden Banks have traditionally relied on the best information available, as well as close working relationships between scientists and resource managers. A management plan for the Flower Garden Banks was implemented with the designation of the marine sanctuary in 1992. A review of this management plan began in 2006, and is scheduled for completion by 2009. This report provides some vital information to help guide this process, and will be updated approximately every five years.

The sanctuary management plan focuses on activities that can be directly regulated or managed, though impacts taking place within the sanctuary include both human-induced and natural causes. This document outlines both natural and human activities, and evaluates impacts from both. The human activities of primary interest are scuba diving, research, fishing, oil and gas activities, shipping and transport. There are also concerns that gaps in protection for other reefs and banks in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico could compromise the condition of associated assemblages throughout the region. Natural events discussed include climate change and hurricanes. Impacts from natural events can be exacerbated by human influences that reduce ecosystem resistance or resilience. Responses to these pressures by sanctuary management are also reported, and options for future management are presented.

The current conditions of the water, habitat, and living marine resources, based on research, monitoring, and anecdotal information collected over the past 40 years, are presented here. A brief history of the sanctuary is included, and pressures on sanctuary resources are discussed. The document includes a report card, indicating both the status and trends within three categories. In general, the health of most Flower Garden Banks sanctuary resources is rated as either “good” or “good/fair.” Habitat conditions were rated slightly higher than water and living resources, primarily because of recent findings of high levels of ciguatoxin and mercury in fish, and concerns over apparent decreases in certain fished species and increases in the level of fishing. The Food and Drug Administration has issued a seafood advisory to seafood processors that is related directly to fish caught at and around the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary. Also of particular concern is fishing targeting grouper, jacks and snapper, which are dominant predators in the ecosystem. One species being targeted, marbled grouper, is known to be rare throughout most of its range, but is common in certain habitats at the Flower Garden Banks. Continued targeted removal of this species could put the wider population at risk.

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